Once again we have another batch of Unearthed Arcana playtest material, following the order presented in the Player’s Handbook, we not reach the Monk class. We’re about halfway through all of the available classes, my anticipation with the new material intensifies with each class we enhance and expand. Two new traditions are introduced for the Monk, the Kensai (which we have tried to adopt in an earlier article, click here) and the Way of Tranquility. The Kensai is a warrior who specializes in fighting with a specific weapon (according to traditional lore), we have expanded beyond the single weapon to incorporate a group of weapons that the Kensai has worked and mastered. It feels more like the Wuxia movie archetype with the skilled monk warrior who mastered two or three different types of weapons to deadly accuracy and skill. Compared to my original version of the Kensai, this iteration feels more generalized and open compared to the linear design suggested. The Way of Tranquility has flavor and features that call back to a monk that uses violence as an absolute last resort, instead using their fighting style to quench combat and deter it even.

Various monk tropes, Image by Wizards of the Coast

Like previous Unearthed Arcanas, Wizards has a nice survey all set up for the previous article, which was the Fighter previously. I implore that anyone that has the time and has read the playtest material to consider answering the surveys that Wizards puts out for these materials. The feedback goes a long way in evolving the game further in what I consider to be a possible Player’s Handbook 2. If that’s the case, the feedback from the community will definitely give the developers some ideas on what works, what fits, and what seems clunky.

Check out the new Monk Traditions Unearthed Arcana, click here.

Fighter Archetype Survey can be found here.

The Way of the Kensai – an old archetype revisited and made accessible

The Kensai was a first introduced back in AD&D’s Oriental Adventures, it was a class that was described as a warrior who perfected their weapons technique by excluding all others. In other words, they fought using a specialized and specific fighting style generated by their signature weapon of choice. While the design mentality for 5th Edition is more inclusive than exclusive, the Kensai had some overhauls made to reflect it which at first felt like a departure from the original concept but managed to create capture the essence and theme.

Path of the Kensai: This is a large column of text. Just like the Martial Arts feature for the Monk, we have to classify a new weapon category called “kensai weapons” which are can consist of monk weapons but if they are not part of the monk weapons list, than they are only considered kensai weapons. This odd rules clarification was one of the early things that needed to be addressed, as Rules As Written (RAW) it is clear that there the kensai weapons have their own rules that govern their effectiveness and features. From an Rules As Intended (RAI) perspective, it felt that somewhere in the design logic, the new kensai weapons were going to be gifted the same classification as monk weapons but ultimately was made into its own category that resulted in them being mutually exclusive. The only exception is the shortsword is both a martial weapon and a monk weapon, this is the only method (presently) to incorporate the full range of abilities from the Monk with the Kensai.

Choosing three martial weapons be considered weapons, the Kensai can grant these three weapons the ability to deal the Monk’s Martials Arts dice damage instead of the weapon’s normal damage die. This reduces its potential damage output selection to mainly one-handed weapons, bows, and polearms since two-handed weapons will outperform the 1d10 Martial Arts die. There are some interesting add-ons for kensai weapons that differ from traditional martial arts, for example using the pummel to deal extra damage as a bonus action instead of the extra attack granted from Martial Arts. Additionally, this is one feature I thought was very thoughtful and powerful (especially for early levels), granting a +2 bonus to AC if the Kensai attacks with an unarmed strike while wielding their kensai weapon.

Overall, there seemed intentional that Wizards wanted to keep the Kensai and Monk weapon classifications largely separate and grant the Kensai new uses but incorporate the Martial Arts damage die as an alternative. I can still envision a Kensai with a greatsword, wielding it in combat, landing unarmed strikes and using the large blade to block incoming attacks. It aesthetically fits, it may not logically make sense but sometimes we have to compromise between flavor and design which this feature does a decent good job albeit a hard one.

One with the Blade: Now the monk’s unarmed strikes and kensai weapons are considered magical weapons. This makes more sense and calls back to 3.5 Edition’s Kensai design with a signature weapon that becomes imbued with abilities through a special ritual. This time there are no rituals but through the residual ki that the monk extrudes, the weapon becomes magical in nature. The Precise Strike aspect improves the chances for a single attack to hit its target.

I can understand why Wizards did not want to grant this ability a ki point cost, as it would become quite abusable. Instead this feature is granted through the kensai’s training and specialization rather than from the mystical energy the monk channels into their attacks. At 6th-level, a kensai monk would have a +3 proficiency bonus, and let’s assume they have an 18 Dexterity score (so +4 modifier), the monk has +7 as an attack modifier already. If we were to double the proficiency bonus for one attack, it would have a +10 attack modifier for a single attack. From an honest perspective, unless you’re facing a lot of armored characters, most challenge rating monsters ranging from 3 to 8 have an AC anywhere from 12 to 18. At this point within the level progression, there are larger requirements for higher rolls and to consistently have a feature to help alleviate that would reduce the overall challenge of the encounter. So while I personally may not enjoy the feature being restricted to a single attack with a need to recharge with a rest, from a game design perspective it is almost needed. At higher levels, especially when we have at +5 proficiency bonus, it becomes a +10 when using this feature. So keeping it restricted makes sense here, especially when you get down to the Sharpen Blade feature at 11th-level.

Sharpen Blade: One of the design flaws I experienced while writing the kensai was trying to find a middle ground for granting an enhancement bonus to the kensai weapon without being permanent. 5th Edition has proven that static numeric bonuses are very powerful and often can change the landscape regarding difficulty. The kensai monk can expend up to 3 ki points and gain a bonus to their attack and damage rolls with their kensai weapon equal to the ki points spent, and the effect lasts for 1 minute. This is useful ability especially at the beginning of combat, granting a potential +3 to attack and damage rolls goes a long way to whittling down opposition.

Combined with some of the other features in the class, with two attacks per Attack action, the kensai weapon has the potential to deal an additional 6 points of damage if both hit. Each attack roll goes from a +8 (assuming +4 proficiency bonus with +4 Dexterity modifier) to a +11 for 1 minute. That is inherently powerful for a feature, granted by this point in the progression we have spellcasters dishing out anywhere from 8d6 to 5d10 worth of damage with a single action. So perhaps it may feel less impactful but like the Fighter, the Monk relies on consistency as opposed to explosive bits of damage and the Kensai is no different.

Unerring Accuracy: Once per turn, the kensai can reroll one weapon attack that misses. As I have learned with the Barbarian’s Reckless Attack, granting themselves advantage on attack rolls is quite potent of a feature. The kensai has plenty of features encourage accuracy and even improve chances for a successful strike. This feature simply intensifies this core design theme and grants the kensai greater damage output potential. Compared to other monk capstones, this and the Opportunist from the Way of Shadow both fit the “could be stronger but isn’t for fear of being overpowered”. I’m not saying that the free re-roll isn’t powerful or that having it each turn isn’t already potentially more powerful, it doesn’t express the concept of some sort of secret ultimate technique that a kensai may have acquired at the end of their career. The japanese refer this ultimate technique as an “ougi” which generally a move designed to instantly slay a foe. While I do approve of this feature, it doesn’t seem enough to capture the theme the archetype exemplifies.

The Kensai overall has some great offerings and fits the design philosophy of the 5th Edition ruleset regarding inclusivity but carries the flavor of the original concept well in the early and even mid-tier levels. The capstone falls short on the flavor department but mechanically is quite potent and should not entirely discounted. Wizards is trying very hard to prevent martial classes to have explosive capstones and instead emphasize more on damage consistency over the course of a combat encounter.

The Way of Tranquility – never piss off the silent peace lover

The peace-loving monk trope has always been a fun and interesting archetype to roleplay but often falls short due to the inherent combat that ensues throughout the game. Even though this particular monk can try to negotiate or talk their way out of combat, once all talks end, the fists start flying. These monks do not condone death but may bring death to foe that mean the monk and their allies harm. Traditionally these monks avoid killing their foes but that is not always necessary. Tranquil Monks also use their ki to heal allies and even cure diseases very much like the Paladin’s Lay on Hands. Ultimately when this monk sees others bring death, they become viscerally angry and start unleashing a torrent of damage.

Path of Tranquility: The Tranquil Monk has the ability to cast sanctuary on themselves and can do so once every hour. From a certain point of view, having the monk warded from direct attacks fits the idea of a monk that abstains from conflict, granted it doesn’t protect the monk from area effects so enduring an explosion or poison gas cloud is going to eventually force the monk to reconsider their position. For early levels, not many enemies or monsters have area effects so in the beginning its quite potent and useful. From a tactical standpoint, it’s extremely useful when the monk needs to be healed and this provides a way to help the monk from gaining more damage. At higher levels, this ability still has some usefulness should the monk require a moment to heal themselves.

Healing Hands: Initially, it looks like a direct copy of the Paladin’s Lay on Hands feature. For the healing pool, the amount of hit points it heals, and even the portion where the monk can expend 5 hits points worth of healing to cure a disease or poison. But the one aspect that separates this feature from the Paladin’s comes from the final two paragraphs of the feature: whenever the Tranquil Monk uses their Flurry of Blows feature, they can substitute one of those attacks with a Healing Hands use. This is quite a useful aspect of the feature, allowing the monk to still be offensively effective but granting some healing to a needed ally like the Fighter or Barbarian who perhaps happens to be adjacent.

Douse the Flames of War: This feature is designed to instill peace into a creature, making them unwilling to attack for 1 minute if they fail a Wisdom saving throw. The only clause: if the target is missing any hit points, they automatically succeed the save, which emphasizes that this feature should be used at the start of combat if the monk wins initiative. Now you may be asking, how is the feature of any use? Well, let’s see you have a powerful wizard foe, the monk wins initiative and uses this feature, the wizard fails the saves therefore cannot attack or cast spells that deal damage for 1 minute. During this time, the party has someone tie rope and bound the wizard’s arms and legs. Now the only stipulation with all of that is whether or not the wizard has to make a grapple check to avoid being roped by the party, since it would not constitute as an attack or require a saving throw, this tactic should work in theory. This feature requires a bit more ingenuity from the players on how to maximize the use of this feature, but I’m sure it does offer plenty of roleplaying opportunities.

Anger of a Gentle Soul: As capstone ability, this one falls under the odd category of aesthetically flavorful but may feel underwhelming at first glance. So as a reaction, the tranquil monk gains extra damage equal to their monk level until the end of their next turn. This ability is triggered whenever a creature is dropped to 0 hit points, which is fairly easy to do so long as either an ally or a foe falls. So this same 17th-level monk deals 1d10+4 (assuming Dexterity of 18) normally, while under the influence of this feature, the monk changes the damage to 1d10+21. If this monk uses Flurry of Blows, that’s four attacks that potentially could deal an average of 26 points of damage per hit. This feature feels and sits along the line of impactful capstones. Initially it looked underwhelming but when factoring Flurry of Blows it gives this monk a greater potential to knock down a large and powerful foe. The monk still needs to take a short or long rest to regain this feature, which is looks fair since this inner rage is not directly attributed by ki and therefore should not have a ki cost. I would rather not see the monk consistently use this power since this feature grants the monk a shining moment to change the course of a combat encounter.

Overall, the Way of Tranquility has great potential elements within its features, it’s thematically attuned with the concept of a peace-loving monk. The features require more out of the box solutions but they provide opportunities that sometimes not all playgroups or even players consider. Why should they kill the goblins? They are only doing what is within their natures and within their right to survive. As the original description was given in the playtest material, these monks serve as great diplomats and rightly so. I feel that this archetype is rather balance and gives the monk useful features both inside and outside of combat, provides a secondary healer, and allows them to dish out damage when necessary.

Final Impressions

  • The two archetypes strive to achieve the themes of iconic monk tropes and manage to encapsulate them well
  • The Kensai was given a boarder range of expertise to encourage 5e’s inclusivity
  • The Kensai Weapons category and separation from traditional monk weapons is a necessary redundancy in order to separate them, unless it’s a shortsword.
  • The Sharpen Blade feature for the Kensai answers the pressing issue of a Kensai’s signature weapon from previous editions and manages to satisfy it both mechanically and flavorfully.
  • The Unerring Accuracy capstone feature for the Kensai felt underwhelming and didn’t seem to grasp the Wuxia concept of an ultimate weapons technique, instead extending the greater gains of accuracy from their training.
  • The Way of Tranquility monk styles itself after the peace-loving monks from various eastern tales who resort to violence as a last resort
  • The Tranquil monk has thematically appropriate features that revolve around deterring attacks on the monk to stopping a hostile creature from attack for a limited time.
  • The Tranquil monk offers an empowered version of the Paladin’s Lay on Hands feature with the upside of being used as part of a Flurry of Blows bonus action.
  • The Tranquil monk gains an aesthetically explosive capstone that emphasizes on speedy resolutions of combat

The monk has received some additions from the Sword Coast’s Adventurer’s Guide with the Way of the Sunsoul and the Way of the Long Death which brought back favorites from the Forgotten Realms. Having more options is never a bad thing, while this class did not need as many as say the Fighter or the Druid, it definitely wasn’t unwelcome. The design direction that Wizards chose for the Kensai feels like a strong compromise in both flavor and design. The capstone does not feel as impactful or perhaps needs to be extended if anything. The Tranquil Monk is very flavorful and reminiscent with the image of the peace-loving monk, the features and abilities deal with deterring attacks or removing an enemy out of combat for a time. The monk can now be a secondary healer, which is something that beneficial for the party composition but also gives the monk a wider utility. I really enjoyed this Unearthed Arcana and look forward to doing the survey when the Paladin playtest comes out.

If you need the link for the new Monk Traditions Unearthed Arcana, click here.

For the Fighter Archetype Survey, click here.

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